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September 28, 2018 11:52 am

Europe Poised Between ‘Judeo-Christian Heritage’ and ‘Nihilist Mainstream,’ Hungarian Foreign Minister Says

avatar by Ben Cohen


Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó in conversation with The Algemeiner in New York. Photo: Hungary Foreign Ministry.

Six months after Viktor Orbán’s election to a third term as Prime Minister of Hungary, the country’s Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó, remains adamant that the nationalist agenda reviled by the government’s opponents has not wavered.

“We are pretty much frustrated with the international mainstream, which would like to get rid of the religious ties and religious heritage of certain countries and certain continents, let’s put it this way,” Szijjártó, who was visiting New York for the 73rd UN General Assembly, told The Algemeiner in an in-depth interview this week. “Our position is that we have to stick to our heritage, to our culture, to our religion. Europe is based on a very strong Judeo-Christian heritage, and we are fighting against the nihilist mainstream that would like to get rid of it.”

Szijjártó says he conducts Hungary’s international relations through a prism of national sovereignty above all other considerations. “Hungary puts its foreign policy on a basis of mutual respect, meaning that we respect the decisions of the citizens of other countries and we expect other countries to respect our decisions,” he explained at the outset.

Given that doctrine, it is not surprising that Szijjártó is a rare European voice of sympathy for both US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose “patriotic” policies he warmly endorses.

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“To be honest, I find it both sad and tragic how Europeans, how mainstream liberal media in Europe and the US, tried to beat the current US president,” Szijjártó said in Trump’s defense. “I think here double standards are applied. If these things would be said by a socialist in Europe or by a Democrat in the US, then these statements would be celebrated by the mainstream media as the most progressive statements ever.”

For Szijjártó, the broader distaste for Trump in the European Union is a neat illustration of why national sovereignty is preferable to multilateral institutions. “When there was an extraordinary meeting of EU foreign ministers after the [2016 US] election I didn’t show up, because I said, ‘It’s not our business,'” he remarked. “And I’m very sad that the current European Commission carried out a policy which was based on creating hysteria against the current US president. I’m very sad that the European media falsified many times the statements and words of the current US president, because I think if we Europeans had been more polite, more respectful toward the decision of the US citizens, the transatlantic relationship would be much better than it is currently.”

Szijjártó expresses unabashed sympathy for Trump’s positions. “We like Donald Trump saying ‘America First,’ because who else would say America First if not the US president? And what else should the US president say is first, if not America?”

Trump’s brazenness on this point has boosted “those countries which were said to be too nationalistic,” Szijjártó argued — a list that includes not just Hungary, but nations from Italy to Poland that have elected nationalist governments. “So his approach to these issues is rather refreshing, because our policy is Hungary First.”

Trump’s own appearance at the UN this week was dominated by his administration’s stance toward Tehran — not quite “regime change,” but hardly encouraging of regime stability either. Would Hungary, which retains economic and political relations with Iran in common with the rest of the EU, assist Trump in his goal of locking down new sanctions?

“We are a small country, we are not in the focus of Iranian policy, Iran is not in the focus of our foreign policy, so we are not really game-changers in this regard,” Szijjártó answered. “The overall approach of the EU is that it is much better to have Iran in the international discussion and dialogue than having it out of it, that’s the general position of ours and Europe, but I don’t think we are the decisive factor when it comes to the Iran policy of the US administration.”

When it comes to Israel, however, Szijjártó feels that Hungary is more relevant. Embracing the Jewish state as a “strategic partner,” Szijjártó stressed that “we have always pushed for a balanced friendly and fair approach by the international organizations to Israel, we have vetoed many times declarations and resolutions of the EU which would have been unfriendly or unfair or hostile towards Israel.”

Szijjártó, who has served as Hungary’s Foreign Minister since 2014, recalled his own conflict with the EU over proposals to label products from Israeli communities in the West Bank. “Labeling products from Israeli settlements does harm to those entrepreneurs which employ Palestinian people,” he said. “My question would be, if these Palestinian people lose their jobs, then what’s next? So I don’t like these kinds of hypocritical measures, which do not help when it comes to the resolution of the conflict.”

He is also supportive of the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the following relocation of the American embassy from Tel Aviv. Would the EU permit Hungary to follow the US example?

“The EU has no say where I put my embassies, but currently moving our embassy in Israel from one place to another is not on the agenda,” Szijjártó replied.

Perhaps the most complicated factor in the Israeli-Hungarian relationship involves Hungary’s own Jewish community — the largest in central Europe, numbering up to 100,000 — and the ongoing concern that Orban has played with antisemitic themes as part of his political campaigning. With both the government’s hostility to George Soros — the politically-influential Jewish billionaire who was born in Hungary and resolutely opposes Orban — and the current tension with the Jewish community over the content of a new Holocaust museum, the accusation of antisemitism has surfaced regularly.

On the matter of the House of Fates, the Budapest museum whose government-appointed head Maria Schmidt equates Nazi crimes with those committed by the Soviet-backed Communists, to the alarm of many Hungarian Jews, Szijjártó said that Hungary was looking to resolve the dispute.

“We are going to be very careful when finalizing the concept of the museum,” he said. “That’s why our two prime ministers, Mr. Orban and Mr. Netanyahu, had a phone conversation on Monday where they have agreed that a delegate from Israel will come to Budapest in two weeks time, and there we will discuss how to go forward with the concept. Nothing has been done which has reached a point of no return.”

On the question of George Soros, Szijjártó insisted that his government’s campaign against the financier was in no way antisemitic.

“Soros would like to change the composition of the population in Europe, he would like to see a Europe full of migrants, he would like to see a Europe without borders, he would like to see a Europe getting rid of its national and religious identities — and this is something we don’t want,” Szijjártó said. “So we have a very serious debate with him about the future of Europe, but this has nothing to do with his religion.”

For Szijjártó, migration is a civilizational question before it is a humanitarian concern, and he cited the rise of antisemitism among Muslim populations in western Europe as reason for caution.

“The illegal migration changes definitely the composition of the population of western Europe, and that ends up in this rising of modern-age antisemitism,” he said. “Perilous societies are being created in the western part of Europe, which is always a cradle for religious intolerance and religious extremism. The truth is that in the central part of Europe, antisemitism is definitely pushed back, and in the western part of Europe, antisemitism is on the rise.”

Szijjártó is proud that Hungary’s Foreign Ministry now has a secretariat dedicated to the plight of Christian communities in the Middle East, which he regards as consistent with the country’s “Christian Democratic” orientation.

“We spent about 15 million euro supporting the Christian communities of the Middle East,” he said. “The Christian leaders in the Middle East do not ask us to help their communities leave. They ask us to help them to stay. And this is a very important principle. We are helping those communities to stay there and be strong.”

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